Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett
Discworld, Terry Pratchett’s satirical fantasy series, has entertained lovers of fantasy novels since the publication of its first installment, The Color of Magic, in 1983. Over the course of dozens of novels, the focus of Pratchett’s satire in the series changed. Early entries like The Color of Magic tended to be broad parodies of fantasy and role-playing conventions and characterizations. However, later novels such as Night Watch, Thud, and Unseen Academicals became much more focused on satire of real-world concepts of race, class, and current societal issues. Unseen Academicals is a strong example of the style of the later Discworld installments. On its surface level a novel about a group of wizards trying to win a “football” game, Unseen Academicals is a sprawling satire of modern attitudes towards sports fandom, social class, and the cloistered nature of academe.
The action of Unseen Academicals begins as Ankh-Morpork’s ruler, the dictator Lord Vetinari, orders that the wizards of Unseen University come up with a means of making the city’s most popular sport, a brutal entertainment called “Foot-the-Ball,” into a more playable and less deadly form. The wizards have more experience with academic theories of magic and eating savory pastries than the culture of the city around them and struggle to understand even the basics of how to play the game—all the goals they score in their first “match” are into their own goals! The wizards are aided in their attempt to understand and succeed in the game by many characters from Ankh-Morpork’s working class, including Mr. Nutt, a brilliant goblin, and his fried Trev, the son of a famous footballer.
Pratchett has a very distinctive writing style that emphasizes dry, sarcastic humor and character development over rapid thrills and galloping narrative. He is also one of the relatively few modern authors not to use chapter stops, which can be make it more difficult for some readers to follow the flow of his novels as they don’t follow a “serial” format and do not have a sense of beginning or ending—other than the overall narrative of the book itself. Readers willing to invest the extra time and effort to invest in understanding Pratchett’s rich descriptions and characterizations will find a rewarding, clever novel from a humorist whose sly wit and penchant for biting satire deserve to stand alongside greats such as Ambrose Bierce and Mark Twain.
Unseen Academicals, despite being an entry in a long-running series, is reasonably accessible to readers new to Pratchett’s Discworld universe. The football storyline is self-contained in the novel and does not require any prior knowledge of Discworld, and recurring characters such as Lord Vetinari and Unseen University’s magically-evolved orangutan Librarian are explained quite well within the novel’s narrative. Some humor reliant on minor characters and jokes dependent on prior series knowledge will be more difficult for new readers, most notably a cameo appearance by Death, star of Reaper Man and Mort. Nonetheless, Pratchett’s Discworld novels are strongly recommended to readers for a unique, clever voice in satirical writing.